For everyone in the United States, “freedom of the press is a right — but not for those of us who work in journalism,” said Darien’s Scott Pelley, correspondent and anchor for CBS News for almost 30 years.

Speaking in front of a packed house Friday night at Town Hall, Pelley continued: “For those who work in journalism, freedom of the press is risk and toil and endless days of hard work so that everyone in the country can enjoy [former President James] Madison’s guarantee of freedom,” he said.

“That is the fight worth fighting and the truth worth telling,” Pelley added.

Pelley, author of, “Truth Worth Telling: A Reporter’s Search for Meaning in the Stories of Our Times,” was the keynote speaker at Darien’s 2020 Bicentennial Opening Ceremony.

The ceremony, which was about 90 minutes long, was the first event of the town’s many planned 200th anniversary celebrations.

Town and political leaders who showed up to the big night included Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson; Selectmen Christa McNamara, Sarah Neumann, and David Martin; former First Selectmen Ann Mandel and Evonne Klein; and state Reps. Terrie Wood and Matthew Blumenthal.

Also in attendance were state Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, state Sen. Carlo Leone, and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

The three Darien High School students who created the town’s 200th anniversary logo — Kelly Niederreither, Will Henry Harmon, and Charlie Callery, as well as student liaison Sarah Lexow Keena, were recognized at the event.

The Darien High School Tudor Singers performed several musical pieces, and members of Boy Scout Troop 53 presented the colors.

Pelley

Pelley said that during his journalism career, he met some of the most “interesting” people in the world “during times that they discover the meaning of their lives in the great moments of history.”

He spoke about a subject he said is “paramount” in his life: the events he experienced firsthand during the tragedy of 9-11.

“I was there when the buildings came down, watching the firefighters of the FDNY go charging into those buildings,” Pelley said.

In doing research for his book, he learned about two people in one of the towers: Melissa Doi, an investment broker trapped in an office; and Orio Palmer, a battalion chief of the FDNY.

“They almost met on that day because of the incredible courage of the men and women of the fire department of the City of New York,” Pelley said.

He read excepts from his book, speaking about Doi and Palmer.

“Doi was on the phone with a 911 operator, saying, ‘I’m going to die, aren’t I?’” Pelley read. “The operator replied “No, no, no, ma’am.’”

He continued: “When Doi stopped responding on the phone to the operator, the operator called her name without response more than 16 times over the next 15 minutes.”

Pelley said he remembers being on his knees in the middle of West Street in Manhattan, calling out to God.

“I said, ‘Lord, take them all with no pain,’” he said.

He said he next remembers running as fast as he could, “as this enormous conflagration erupted behind me and the sound of steel hit the street.”

Over the next 96 hours, Pelley could be seen on the air at CBS News.

“No breaks, no commercials. All day, all night for 96 hours,” he said.

“This is the value of journalism in our society,” he added. “Especially in times of crises, the American people need clear, accurate information. Many people devoted themselves to that on that day.”

According to Pelley, there have been worse times for journalism in the U.S., such as in 1798, when the Sedition Act was passed.

“The Sedition Act made it a federal crime to criticize any member of Congress or the president of the United States,” he said.

Reporters and editors went to jail in those days for being critical of government, he said.

In 1800, Madison wrote a criticism of the Sedition Act, said Pelley, which said, ‘Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, is the right that guarantees all the others,’” Pelley said. “There is no democracy without journalism.”

He further said all Americans need to have reliable information “in order to make decisions about our lives, our family’s lives, and the life of the country.”

200th anniversary

In his opening remarks, Alan Miller, chairman of the town’s 2020 Bicentennial Committee, said Darien residents have achieved much over the past 200 years.

“There are highly accomplished professionals in business, journalism, entertainment, arts, medicine, and many other things,” Miller said.

He added, “Darien has truly raised the standards of excellence in our state.”

In her speech, Stevenson said, “For many wonderful reasons, 2020 is bound to be a year that will live on in our collective memories for years to come.”

She spoke about the “independent and can-do spirit” in Darien’s past, that’s “centered around the love of family and community.”

It is this spirit that remains the town’s “guiding principle today” and the “foundation for Darien’s successful future,” she added.

Stevenson spoke of the late Rev. Moses Mather, the minister of the First Congregational Church of Darien, who led the community during the Revolutionary War.

“Today, we’d call him an activist,” she said.

Moses wrote a book about why the colonies should be independent from England, “and preached this cause from his pulpit every Sunday,” Stevenson said.

“Mather’s preaching made him a target of the British and led to the dramatic Sunday raid of the First Congregational Church in 1781, when he and 46 of his congregants were kidnapped from the church and later imprisoned in a Manhattan jail for five months,” she said.

She also spoke about Sally Dibble, “who shielded a young boy from capture and refused to surrender him to a soldier, demanding the boy’s release. During that raid, 22-year-old Thaddeus Bell was among the congregants hidden and held prisoner,” she said.

Despite all the “horrors” of that war, the Darien community “rebounded, stronger and more resilient than ever. Under the tireless efforts and leadership of Thaddeus Bell, our early inhabitants began calling for an independent town, which was finally granted in 1820, and the reason why we celebrate tonight,” she added.

Darien continues to lead by its forefathers’ and foremothers’ example, according to Stevenson.

For such a “small” town, Stevenson said that Darien is consistently recognized as a leader in areas including its schools, sports teams, public library, and municipal services.

She praised Darien’s police officers, its Post 53 ambulance service, and its all-volunteer fire department, which she said “are among the nation’s finest examples of first responders.”

Stevenson said she’s certain that if Darien residents “firmly resolve to stick to our core values, that future residents will say that ‘we, too, lived up to the examples of Moses Mather, Sally Dibble, and [philanthropist] Benjamin Fitch.”

In his speech, Sen. Blumenthal said he’s grateful to the town for coming together as a community “to show us what is really important about Darien, what’s important about Connecticut, what’s important about America.”

Blumenthal added that Darien has always shown its shared values of community.

“It has always come together and put aside differences to accomplish what people need, and that’s really vital, so it’s a lesson that a lot of us could learn to take part,” he added.

After the event, Rep. Wood said, “It was a joy to attend the Darien Bicentennial opening celebration on Friday night. Stevenson’s remarks connecting historical figures from the Revolutionary War to our current values as a community gave such perspective to our town’s many strengths. Chairman Alan Miller and the Bicentennial Committee members did a terrific job organizing the evening and the celebratory events upcoming throughout the year.”

Klein said, “Having had the privilege to serve the residents of Darien as its first selectman, it’s clear that each era has its challenges and opportunities that define the times; and how you meet those challenges can define you as a leader.”

She continued: “Our founders faced a number of challenges and were defined by their willingness to do the hard work to ensure that Darien became independent. In Darien, we have a long history of protecting our values, way of life and our institutions. Generations have reaped the benefits of the opportunities created by our founders and those who followed.”

“Scott Pelley reminded me that when I served as first selectman, our values, democracy, institutions and our free press were not under the threat they are today,” Klein said. “He also reminded me that we all are responsible for this democracy. Whether you are an elected official or a private citizen, we are being challenged today to protect all that we hold dear.”

Following the opening ceremony was a ticketed cocktail reception at the Darien Arts Center.

Other Darien 2020 Bicentennial events

 Weed Beach Festival’s Bicentennial Bash, June 6

 Anniversary Day, June 12

 Heritage Day Celebration, Oct. 24

sfox@darientimes.com